Mont Pelee on the Caribbean island of Martinique began its volcanic eruption in late April 1902. Ash began to fall on the nearby city of St. Pierre. At first the city’s inhabitants weren’t too concerned, but some began to send their woman and children to safer ground as the volcano became more active. Finally on May 8th at 7:52 A.M. the mountain’s upper flank facing the city opened and an intensely hot cloud of black vapor shot out towards the city like smoke from the muzzle of a cannon. In less than a minute the hot gas, a mixture of super heated steam at 1900 degrees, lethal gases and explosive dust, reached the city and everything in it burst into flame. At the same time a second black cloud rolled upwards and spread darkness for fifty miles across. Of the 30,000 people trapped in the city only two survived. The city itself burned for days. The show’s auditorium seated 1200 people and was equipped with 11 exits to assure safety in the event the pyrotechnic display got out of control and set the building afire.
The gates are open to the new public/private art project called “Coney Art Walls,” and today you can have a look at all 30 or so of the new pieces by a respectable range of artists spanning four decades and a helluva lot of New York street culture history. We’ve been lucky to see a lot of the action as it happened over the last five weeks and the range is impressive. These are not casual, incidental choices of players lacking serious resumes or street/gallery cred, but the average observer or unknowing critic may not recognize it.
Fighting the flames, Dreamland, Coney Island, 1905
Another disaster illusion designed and staged by Thompson at Luna Park in 1904 was called Fire and Flames. It had its auditorium arranged that spectators were seated on the other side of the street from a burning four story building. Luna hired hundreds of firemen to fight imaginary flames. A rescue squad arrived to save actual men and women trapped in the building’s top floors, who jumped to safety into the nets below. Luna was the first park to present a live spectacular show.
In Dreamland’s similar, more elaborate and most exciting show, Fighting the Flames, there was the noisy arrival of the fire fighting apparatus, followed by breathtaking rescues of people trapped in the building’s upper stories. Spectators watched from bleachers just inside the buildings ornate facade decorated with sculptures of fire fighters. A cast of 2000 fire fighters, complete with four engines and hose wagons, an extension ladder fire truck had to save a full-sized six-story hotel constructed of iron that was set on fire.